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Despite census results we dismiss religion at our peril



The census results tell us that the number of people who indicate 'no religion' has grown to one third of the population. That is a solid fact about our Australian society. And facts are there to ground us in reality. In this most secular of societies it is not surprising that this number is rising.

Crowd aerial viewIndeed, a growing refusal to tick a box marked Christian, Muslim or Buddhist simply because of family or cultural allegiance reveals an honesty about how we live and think. Some commentators greeted this news as a clear sign of progress, a mark of our growing maturity: people are learning to see through the claims and limits of religious belief. It's worth pausing a moment to consider the underlying assumptions.

Let's be frank. Religion has been, and still is in many cases, a trap. It can be used as a cover, a cloak, for political, economic, sexual or personal power over others, for economic gain, for violence. History provides numerous examples of colonisation where exploitation of peoples, land and resources went hand in hand with 'Christianising' the population.

Today examples of brutality and violence cloaked by appeals to the Koran, to the importance of Hindu, Buddhist, or Islamic superiority are constantly before our eyes. Christians in many Western countries block entry to refugees, treating those of other faiths with great suspicion lest they weaken our 'values'.

People with power can tap into a deep energy, anger or fear in the human psyche which can be manipulated through appeal to religion. 'With God on our side' and 'in the name of Allah' have led to hideous acts carried out in the belief that they are the will of God.

In addition, many people have maintained a pre-critical sense of God that is unable to dialogue meaningfully with modern science. It makes sense that we would grow out of such a 'small' God.

So why not rejoice that Australians are seeing the light? Well, letting the worst of something blind us to its deeper possibilities is not wise in any sphere. One concern is the flat-lining of our society, the removal of any guide other than what I, and the small group I belong to, value.

'Religion' is the name we give to the 'system' — the world view, the principles, the beliefs, the ethics that guide our priorities and actions. This does not always involve reference to God, as many totalitarian regimes have shown. A vacuum in this area will be filled.


"In times when we are drawn to betray our deeper values, the fact that this goes against the common good and undermines relationships we value can steady us."



In many places a culture of narcissism has gained a strong foothold. A culture of my selfie, my needs, my profile, and 'because I'm worth it' has led to the United States, Philippines, North Korea and how many other places being in the hands of narcissistic personalities. The self-absorbing anonymity of cyber space has facilitated violence, bullying, and frighteningly explicit sexual abuse. Pride, envy, destructiveness of all kinds can determine behaviours.

When the depth of major religions is plumbed, they hold up a vision of care for others, for the environment, for a greater meaning in life that can shape our priorities and actions. They encourage us to be our best selves. In times when we are drawn to betray our deeper values, the fact that this goes against the common good and undermines relationships we value can steady us. For this to be true, who God is for us matters. Our relationship with the mystery we name at the heart of life needs to be sufficiently vibrant to hold us. This speaks of the need for a deepening commitment to a real religious quest rather than lip service.

Most deeply, religion opens us to the possibility of encountering mystery and meaning in the gift of our lives and our cosmos. It taps into creativity and into selfless action. It leads to a relationship with a presence greater than ourselves. Some would claim this is spirituality rather than religion, but spirituality without roots in a good theological matrix often reaffirms the narcissism in which our society is currently mired. In our western society the origins of hospitals, schools and social services can all be traced back to the efforts of people grounded in a deep relationship with a God of love. Much poetry, art, drama and great literature grapples with the deeper meaning of life in dialogue with a vision bigger than, and yet discovered through, the everyday challenges of our lives.

Of course it matters greatly how we understand this presence, this mystery at the heart of life. But the religious urge can re-emerge as nationalism, racism, greed, or narcissism, and these have no inherent counter force to question their authenticity. The truths at the base of great religions reorient us towards love, peace and justice. Maybe we dismiss religion at our peril.


Christine BurkeChristine Burke is a Loreto sister, currently based in the Philippines. She has a background in theology and adult faith education, and did her doctoral studies on the interface between secular society and the Christian faith.

Topic tags: Christine Burke, religion, census



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Existing comments

If someone asks you why you believe and your answer is like a thesis, you’re rationalising, not explaining. Yet, faith is both complicated and simple. It’s not about why you believe in God but why you don’t believe Kerry Packer when he said he died and saw nothing.

Roy Chen Yee | 29 June 2017  

>Maybe we dismiss religion at our peril." Dismissing "Established Religions" is very different to dismissing 'religion.' Every Religion is a HUMAN interpretation of our relationship with God. As such it has a history of development from simple responses to adaptions more tailored to the evolving understandings and situations communities face. For example, the idea of loving God above all, (Deut.6:4), referred to a tribal partisan God. Loving neighbours as self,(Levit. 19:18), referred only to fellow tribes people. Only later were these ideas applied more universally. Each Religion finds a path towards God, and tends to treat it as the only such path, rejecting others. But God's Call is Constant and Universal, interpreted by each individual according to their degree of development and disposition, usually in a community setting.

Robert Liddy | 29 June 2017  

I agree 100%. Though much harm has been done in the name of religion, countless millions around the world would have been left to suffer by the non-religious. Christian schools, hospitals, refugee camp, homeless shelters, prison outreaches, counseling center, etc. Have been staffed by religious people loving their neighbors when no one else would. We still need the words and the ways of Jesus in our modern society.

Jim Baton | 29 June 2017  

Your article reminds me of what the late great Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, a prophetic and insightful person, said. It was that Christ came, not to found an institution but to change the world. Bloom was, not just an ecclesiastic, but also a former member of the French Resistance, and, with the late also great Michel Quoist, one of the most genuinely insightful Christian thinkers of the last century, bar none. Both were clerics, one Orthodox, one Catholic and neither had disowned the Church nor written it off. Both were deeply spiritual. That spirituality was not a vague sort of Nimbin stuff about 'love' combined with feelgood psychobabble, but something deeply based in Classic Christian teaching and life. Bloom was Russian and Quoist not just French but a Breton. Both came from traditions which were deeply rooted in place and history. Grounded. I think we in Australia, unless indigenous, are a little bit removed from our ancient spiritual roots, which are in England, Ireland, Italy or elsewhere. We are developing them here. It will take centuries but at least we've started. We need to look at our individual and group dark sides because that is where all the bad things like paedophilia come from. Unless we do we'll just repeat the cycle and get nowhere.

Edward Fido | 29 June 2017  

@ Edward Fido 29 June 2017. Well said, Edward. Those two names, especially Anthony Bloom, were very influential for me in my teenage and young adult years, and Quoist's 'Prayers of Life', you just couldn't go past them. What has happened since then? Shallow corporatism has taken over the church as well as society. Meanwhile, I still, after 5 years, await a certain Archbishops' reply. Is the way of the 'modern' church. Narcissism is alive and well amongst church leaders as well, in fact few other types seem to want to take on such jobs. We so need sane and thinking spirituality, the type of Bloom and Quoist, this current religion of polished hierarchy who won't move unless forced, is so cold.

Stephen de Weger | 30 June 2017  

Roy Chen Yee :"...'why you believe".. WHY we believe is much more important than WHAT we believe. If the reason is that we bonded to what we were taught in childhood, or to what everyone around us believes, we are exactly the same position as those who believe in other different traditions. What we see most clearly, and love most dearly, are ideals. We all tend to idealise whatever religion we 'inherited' and even to idolise it, not realising that it appeals to us because it has been developed to suit our particular circumstances. If we had been born into different circumstances, we would almost certainly bond to other religions. The practice of the early Christians, though not put into words, was "From everyone according to their ability; to everyone according to their need". This practice generated such genuine universal love that they truly felt the Presence of God among them, and were ready to live and die for it.

Robert Liddy | 30 June 2017  

Thanks, Robert Liddy. “This practice generated such genuine universal love that they truly felt the Presence of God among them, and were ready to live and die for it.” But if they weren’t also exhorting others to leave their religions to join the club, in effect saying that other religions are not as true, they would, in not believing fully in the ‘Great Commission’ expressed in Scripture, be denying the very same God whose presence they were professing to feel. Or do we know somehow that Scripture is an imperfect reporting of God’s Word and the Great Commission is what an unknown scribe made up? If it isn’t, an ecumenical universal love that says that all paths to God are the same is a deceptive false high. So, there’s a strong linkage between ‘what’ and ‘why’ based (for the overwhelming majority of believers who choose to believe because others whom they trust as being sensible people choose to believe, rather than because they have seen or heard apparitions like various visionaries) on intellectual darwinism, on why the texts of one religion in totality make more sense than another.

Roy Chen Yee | 01 July 2017  

A large contributor to the contemporary mistrust in religion, at least in the West, would seem to be the perception of God as a threat to human freedom and growth, and, conjointly, the confusion of religion and ideology.

John | 02 July 2017  

Robert Liddy,surely in Christian understanding it is Spirit who generates the practice of love, not vice-versa?

John | 02 July 2017  

Thanks Christine for reflecting on the effect of jettisoning religion - to our peril. "Our relationship with the mystery we name at the heart of life needs to be sufficiently vibrant to hold us. This speaks of the need for a deepening commitment to a real religious quest rather than lip service." Expresses the vital to engaging on a personal level and being challenged by the truths you note at the heart of great religions so as to live more deeply - authentically!

Gordana Martinovich | 02 July 2017  

The perpetual adoration of the replacement secular religion is the self-absorbed narcissist enshrined and stupidly framed in the electronic Monstrance, the iPhone.

David Timbs | 03 July 2017  

A great article putting things in proper perspective. Well written

Robyn McCahon | 03 July 2017  

The assumptions about the 'self-absorbing anonymity of cyber space' deserve further exploration. Perhaps we have a generation that have never been more connected or supportive. Perhaps we have a world where political regimes can be brought down by people with smart phones. Perhaps the ability to independently access information has broken control of the media. Perhaps the ability to make friends with people all over the planet has led to less bigotry and more respect for diversity.

Meg McGowan | 03 July 2017  

I wonder what the census results would have been if before asking the Religion question there was this preliminary question: Do you believe you have a spiritual dimension to your life? If no, go to the next section. If yes: do you have a particular framework (moral code, belief system, religious organisation) within which you find nourishment for the spiritual dimension of your life either alone or in the company of others? If alone; go to the next section. If with others: is it with one or more of the following religions? The bald numbers that the census produces regarding religious beliefs/practices do not give a solid fact about our Australian society. Anyone who has participated in the preparation of children for the sacraments will know that many parents who want their children to receive the sacraments do not practise their religion. Yet some of them would identify as catholic in the census, others would not. I realise the census is an important tool for governments to help them formulate socio-economic policies, maybe even cultural policies, but with regard to the Religion question I believe politicians see the statistics as a guide as to how they campaign for votes.

Uncle Pat | 03 July 2017  

Further to Meg McGowan's contribution, if there is a problem with Donald Trump's tweeting, is it the tweeting or Donald Trump? Perhaps we need a charismatic titular head of the Australian Catholic Church who can reorientate the popular culture through a following which thrives on short, wise tweets which hit home.

Roy Chen Yee | 03 July 2017  

Thanks Sister Christine for opening this topic, which has evoked many interesting responses. In Australia we're uniquely positioned vis-à-vis the origins of religion; see, e.g., 'The Spirituality of Catholic Aborigines' by Joan Hendriks and Fr Gerry Hefferan; also recent: 'God's Story - Our Mob'. A strong egalitarianism accompanied a lively foundational sense of humans as foci of spiritual entities, both good and bad. Children were educated to be able to discern the difference. The start of temple-building (e.g. Gobekli) & "power-over'' civilizations in Anatolia and Mesopotamia often show evidence of a cultivation of evil (though Mesoamerican Aztecs took it to it's extreme). Zoroaster taught faith in the victory of spiritual good over evil. Mosaic traditions emphasised this personal & social spiritual struggle. Jesus Christ as given to us by the 9 authors and 27 texts of the New Testament is the unique embodiment of God and thus the truly authentic Way to overcome evil with good. Interestingly, this requires a "power-under" servant culture with resemblances to Aboriginal sociality. For Christians, nearly 2 millennia of women & men Saints have tested and proved this Way; e.g. check-out 'The Penguin Dictionary of Saints'. The world hungers for our return to The Way.

Dr Marty Rice | 03 July 2017  

'The truths at the base of great religions reorient us towards love, peace and justice'. Maybe they do, Christine, but where is the evidence that people who identify with one or other religions are any more likely than those who do not in demonstrating and living out that 'love , peace, and justice'? For example, I think you would be hard pressed to demonstrate any correlation between the religious affiliation of each of our federal parliamentarians and their commitment to notions of 'love, peace, and justice'.

Ginger Meggs | 03 July 2017  

Roy Chen Yee "do we know somehow..." YES. This is a gradual awakening and a reluctant adjusting to a vital Truth - that God has designed everything to evolve from primitive beginnings, and we need to proceed step by step to greater understanding and appreciation of God's Constant and Universal Call. Scripture IS an imperfect reporting..- however sincere the 'reporter'. Just look at the many contradictions in Scripture. They must be reconciled, not brushed aside. The early 'Christians' weren't so much exhorting others to join them as giving an example that others found so attractive; "See how they LOVE one another!' The 'Great Commission' is linked to the |"Trinity" formula ,which did not originate until the 4th Century, so IS clearly 'what an unknown scribe made up'. It clearly contradicts what Jesus preached; 'I am come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel'. Similarly he preached, 'No signs- miracles- will be given to this generation'.- though the Gospels are full of 'miracles' copied from earlier Greek myths about what THEIR gods did. Religion IS the 2 Great Commandments.

Robert Liddy | 04 July 2017  

Excellent article and commentary. In reference to "... they truly felt the Presence of God among them...". The changes that came with Vatican II, particularly the abandonment of the magnificent spoken and sung liturgy with the richness of its sacred music and the abandonment of reverence in the house of God, make it extremely difficult to be elevated to the Presence of God. The quietude of reverence and respect in the architectural House of God with its conversion to a community meeting hall doesn't help either. No wonder that the Church has lost two generations of generic Catholics since Vatican Ii, the surviving the remnants being silly old buggers in their dotage according to the new enlightenment. The Eucharist, along with the rest of the sacramentality that defines Christianity, the very essence of the Presence of God among men, means very little if anything to the modern Australian Catholic educated in erstwhile Catholic schools. We seem to have equated the divine with the human and the sacred with the profane in favour of the mantra of "inclusiveness at all costs".

john frawley | 04 July 2017  

Interestingly Uncle Pat I came across what one politician had to say on the matter of faith and the census - we are still majority Christian if we read the stats correctly - at https://abetz.com.au/blog/census-fake-news-cheer-anti-religious-message-despite-facts

Gordana Martinovich | 04 July 2017  

But John, the early Christians had no cathedrals- they met in houses and burial places. They had no vestments or special music, no beautiful or time-honoured liturgy. Perhaps what has happened I that Vatican II, in doing away with all those things that you love and now miss, has revealed, to others, that the emperor has no clothes, that the traditional liturgy concealed rather than revealed, and that behind it all there is nothing of substance with which to engage.

Ginger Meggs | 04 July 2017  

Pure religion: The twin kiss of love: Three of my dearest friends of which two, a week before they died, tenderly kissed a small crucifix I had brought them. Had I brought them a tiny newborn to kiss. The tenderness of their kiss would have been identical. If you have ever kissed a newborn. Keep that memory.

AO | 05 July 2017  

john frawley/ Ginger Meggs; the 'beautiful or time-honoured liturgy' are not the essentials of devotion to God. They are like the lower rungs of a ladder which are needed for beginners to help them move higher. or like the 'milk' St Paul dispensed when his listeners were as yet unprepared for the 'meat' he would later feed them. They can remain props to assist us when trials beset us, or can become distractions to weaning us from the self-seeking that is a barrier to loving God above all else, even above family and self. We still need to award these other loves the respect they deserve, while learning to love God above all.

Robert Liddy | 05 July 2017  

True, GM. Perhaps there are many cathedrals which elevate a people towards their God's presence. Maybe it depends on context? For the early persecuted Christians perhaps their Cathedral was their gathering together regardless of the site or physical building. I recall once asking a French professor who had visited Uluru if he had climbed up the rock. He replied, "I would not like to see German tourists abseiling down the walls of Notre Dame; so I did not climb the Notre Dame of your Aboriginal people". The Cathedral in Christianity has long been directed towards elevating the people towards God, I believe - thus the spites and arches pointing towards heaven, the priest praying with eyes and hands lifted skywards. The post-Vatican II Church expressed its pursuit of inclusiveness by turning the altar and celebrating priest towards the people, the priests arms enfolding the people rather than reaching towards God in his heaven. Modern architecture of the Cathedral also embraces the semi-circular amphitheatre style. All eplacing the divine with the human. But then, GM , you probably recognise by now than I am a seriously backward silly old bugger!

john frawley | 05 July 2017  

Robert Liddy: “Scripture IS an imperfect reporting …. Just look at the many contradictions in Scripture. They must be reconciled, not brushed aside.” Why not reach the equal conclusion that the many contradictions mean the whole thing is unreliable and must be brushed aside? “The 'Great Commission' is linked to the “Trinity" formula, which did not originate until the 4th Century….” There is opinion that the Commission originally read “in my name”. Even so, it doesn’t give the early Christians the option to allow people attracted to their example to stay in their old religions. The first commandment forbids ‘strange gods before me.’ Also, having believed that the Scriptures are not journalistically true as to when and what Jesus said, how can you now not allow the Church, scripturally the pillar and foundation of the truth, in the light of theological revelation about trinity, to change the baptismal formula to make it more precise? Jesus, after all, isn’t just Jesus. The effect when you baptise in the name of Jesus is to baptise in the name of the Trinity.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 July 2017  

Dear Christine, Thank you for your words which re-enliven me to seek truth and live with integrity . Our consumerist society and sadly many in our church are often content with being comfortable rather than being truth-seeking. Paul

paul gleeson | 06 July 2017  

peril? we are in peril thanks to religion; since there is no afterlife, jettisoning religion is not perilous but a good idea. The claim that "religion opens us to the possibility of encountering mystery and meaning in the gift of our lives" is typical waffle- our lives are gifts from our parents at best, not some sky-being; and mystery-mongering is an age-old way to avoid making actual truth claims. Lives are meaningful to their livers, not to some cosmic joker.

edwin | 06 July 2017  

Dear Patricia I certainly agree with you that we need a counterbalance to the crass capitalistic values that are permeating our society. I do believe though we must carefully allocate our time to those religious organisations that affirm the rights of women of minorities and queer people's On this basis Ifind myself drawn to the Uniting Church and communities such as Emmaus that challenge patriachal and homophones practices.

Michael O'Hanlon | 06 July 2017  

Roy Chen Yee 06 July "Why not ..the whole thing unreliable" The 'whole thing', like every human construct or interpretation, is like a gold mine; lots of priceless nuggets surrounded by loads of dross. The treasures must be sifted out and refined. Science(knowledge) can help. Once it was thought there were 7 'gods',(the sun, moon and the 5 planets visible to the unaided eye),which we still acknowledge in the names of the days of the week. But when the Mesopotamian astronomers learned how to predict the eclipses and the movements of the planets, devotion to those 'gods' declined and paved the way to belief in One God. Similarly, new astronomical knowledge that the whole universe is governed by Constant and \universal Laws has undermined belief that God can be manipulated by humans offering 'prayers and sacrifices'. These things are to bring US into line with God, not to bring God into line with what WE think is a better way for God to run the universe. We need to clarify our thinking.

Robert Liddy | 07 July 2017  

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